Electric Jet Engines Could Mean Carbon-Neutral Air Travel

While still a prototype, the engine could one day help alleviate climate change rates.
Fabienne Lang
Jet engine 3DPhilippe Put/Flickr

We talk a lot about electric cars, and it's evident that engineers are working toward fossil fuel alternatives for our land-based travel. But what about airplanes? In 2019, 18.27 billion gallons of fuel were used by planes. That's far from carbon-neutral. 

Soon though, we could feel less guilty about flying. A team of researchers has created a prototype jet engine that's able to propel itself forward using only electricity. Their study was published in AIP Advances in May 2020.

Electric jet engines

The device, created by researchers from the Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University in China, compresses air and ionizes it using microwaves. This then generates plasma that thrusts the engine forward. 

The main push for the team to create this new type of engine was the climate crisis. "The motivation of our work is to help solve the global warming problems owing to humans' use of fossil fuel combustion engines to power machinery, such as cars and airplanes," explained Jau Tang, lead researcher of the study and a professor at Wuhan University. "There is no need for fossil fuel with our design, and therefore, there is no carbon emission to cause greenhouse effects and global warming."

Electric Jet Engines Could Mean Carbon-Neutral Air Travel
A schematic diagram of a prototype microwave air plasma thruster, Source: Jau Tang and Jun Li/Institute of Technological Sciences at Wuhan University

Strong contender

The prototype plasma jet device was able to lift a one-kilogram steel ball over a 24-millimeter diameter quartz cube, which is where the high-pressure air is transformed into a plasma jet thanks to passing through a microwave ionization chamber. To keep things in scale, this corresponds to the thrusting pressure comparable to a commercial plane jet engine.

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Tang said "Our results demonstrated that such a jet engine based on microwave air plasma can be a potentially viable alternative to the conventional fossil fuel jet engine."

It's vital that we start making changes to the way we treat our planet.  The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2020, hitting 417 parts per million in May. Air travel is part of the problem that leads to climate change, so this type of engine could assist in slowing down that change over the coming years.